Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Unique Outcome Expectations as a Training and Pedagogical Tool

Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Unique Outcome Expectations as a Training and Pedagogical Tool

Article excerpt

The learning of the relations between discriminative stimuli, choice actions, and their outcomes can be characterized as conditional discriminative choice learning. Research shows that the technique of presenting unique outcomes for specific cued choices leads to faster and more accurate learning of such relations and has great potential to be developed into a training and pedagogical tool to help individuals with and without learning challenges better learn complex discrimination problems. We present a brief historical account of this technique, a theoretical and empirical analysis, and specific examples of the application of this training technique in everyday discrimination problems and in several traditional school subject areas. We conclude with the iteration that cognitive scientists and educational researchers need not overlook basic associative mechanisms that may be fundamental in subserving complex learning and memory processes.

Key words: differential outcomes, outcome expectations, discrimination learning, stimulus equivalence, training, pedagogical tool


In everyday life, many of our behaviors are learned and reinforced through the availability of rewarding consequences. We work to be rewarded with desirable outcomes, and different people work for different rewards. Many of us have fond memories of our favorite teacher sticking a fancy star on an assignment well done and of how we would look forward to these stickers.

A key aspect of real life is that we are constantly challenged with decisions to make and, almost without exception, every choice comes with a consequence. Very often, such consequences are unique to the particular choices we have made given the presenting problems. For example, when we want specialty coffee, we learn that we can get some at Starbucks. But when we want pizza, we learn that we should go to Pizza Hut instead. That is, many of our everyday behaviors are actually learned through the availability of not just (rewarding) outcomes in general but outcomes that are unique to the choices we make conditionally based on the presenting problems. In a training or classroom setting, we can view the presenting challenges as two different types of questions or problems to be solved and the correct choices as strategies or answers in multiple-choice questions. But, in the standard classroom, the outcomes of choices--and the teacher's "recognition" given to correct choices--are often not unique to the particular overt choice. In fact, the standard teaching procedure is usually to reward correct choices with a common outcome, such as verbal praise (e.g., "good"), or to randomly reward with, say, stars or stickers. That is, no conscious effort is made to provide unique outcomes that correlate with correct responses to specific problems. Docs this matter?

To model such life-choice behaviors that are conditional on the presenting problems and how successful behaviors are followed by specific outcomes, laboratory psychologists have devised the conditional discrimination choice task. This task takes the general form of two contrasting discriminative stimuli, S1 and S2, and two or more choice alternatives. In the presence of S1, the correct choice from among alternatives is R1; in the presence of S2, the correct choice is R2. In the standard training procedure, all correct conditional discriminative choices are followed by either a single, common outcome (the common outcome procedure) or an outcome randomly selected from two possible outcomes (the nondifferential outcomes procedure). In contrast, in a procedure relatively new to practitioners working with human clients that we herein advocate, the training condition involves unique response outcomes. Correct responses to the conditional relation S1-R1 are followed by the unique outcome O1, whereas correct responses to the conditional relation S2-R2 are followed by the unique outcome O2; all incorrect responses are not followed by any outcome and terminate the particular learning trial. …

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